Jenny Dawe interview: ‘We’re leaving Edinburgh in a better place’

Jenny Dawe  in the European Room at the City Chambers
Jenny Dawe in the European Room at the City Chambers
76
Have your say

In the first of our interviews with the city’s party leaders, Jenny Dawe looks back on her turbulent five years in charge of the local authority

WITH a brief flourish of bright yellow paper, Jenny Dawe produces it.

The so-called “missing manifesto” has finally surfaced.

Up until this moment, much capital had been made by opposition parties about her mysterious document and its failure to be published.

Could the delay have meant that running the city for the last five years had left the Liberal Democrats out of steam and ideas? Or was it that the party’s disastrous performance at the Holyrood elections meant not only a much-reduced candidate list for the forthcoming poll but also a smaller wish list from Councillor Dawe and her colleagues?

Certainly the Lib Dems were the last political party to reveal their plans for Edinburgh over the next five years, although one look at the 25-page manifesto shows why. It is dense with detail, with everything from cycle training for every primary six pupil to refurbishing Joppa tennis pavilion mentioned.

Cllr Dawe laughs off the criticism at the length of time it took to produce, comparing the information within with the more “vague, big ideas” contained in some of the other parties’ glossy brochures.

“This is a working document with a lot of detail,” she says. “There’s a lot of information in there which we will refer to over the next few years, just as we did with our last one – though at least this time it doesn’t run to 40 pages.”

Cllr Dawe is accustomed to laughing at brickbats flying in her direction. Her tenure as leader of the city council has been a period marked with fury and fall-outs, controversies and criticisms, spats and splits –and that’s without mentioning the tram project.

“There’s no doubt that the five years have been extremely challenging,” she says. “Not least because of the financial situation we inherited, then within a year the global economic situation hit the council and the city badly, then there were two terrible winters and let’s not mention Icelandic volcanoes, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

She might well be missing it after May 3 if the predictions of political pundits are anything to go by.

With just 17 candidates this time round – six less than in 2007 – and an apparent antipathy towards the Lib Dems nationally for their part in the Westminster coalition, it would seem there’s little chance of Cllr Dawe and her cohorts being major players in the City Chambers after polling day. There is even speculation that they might only return four councillors, one of those being Dawe as she’s moved from the Drum Brae/Gyle ward to Meadows/Morningside, seen as an easier seat for the Lib Dems.

Those of a more uncharitable bent believe she grabbed at the chance to flit wards as Drum Brae could fall completely to the SNP – Cllr Dawe’s coalition partner.

So how has it been working with Steve Cardownie and his group, especially as they failed to back her over trams, school closures, or the move towards privatising some council services such as bin collections?

“I think the coalition administration worked better than anyone expected,” she says.

“Yes, there have been bad moments, mainly with the tram and with the alternative business model. However, in the case of the tram, the SNP saw the folly of the Labour and Conservative plan to stop it at Haymarket. I think they saw that as a turning point and they came good and we got the only result that made sense.

“ABM was another difficulty. Both parties believed that where possible the public sector services should be provided by the public sector, but that as a council we need to provide best value for money.”

She says that the failure of the SNP to back the move to a private company running the bin service was a “big disappointment”, and that her coalition partners “took cold feet”, yet stresses the two parties still “agreed 99 per cent of the time”.

She says: “When we were in coalition negotiations at the start, we had a full manifesto and the SNP a very short one. They felt they could buy into ours – with the exception of the tram – so there wasn’t much to disagree about.”

So if the SNP was following a Lib Dem manifesto, just what did it bring to the coalition table? Influence at Holyrood, perhaps?

“I do think it probably was helpful being in coalition with the SNP in our dealings with Holyrood,” she says. “Most ministers I’ve met respect that you’re standing up for your city, but I think it might have been more difficult if we’d been a Lib Dem-Labour coalition.”

She points to the awarding of the Capital City Supplement and the extra cash that came through changes in social deprivation indexes used by the Scottish Government, as well as the money to rebuild James Gillespie’s and Boroughmuir high schools.

But schools are a touchy subject for Lib Dems, and if there’s one mistake her administration made which still haunts Cllr Dawe, it’s the announcement that 22 schools and nurseries were to close within a few weeks of her taking office.

She believes that either council officials had deliberately given too long a list of closures because “they thought we were naive enough to follow their suggestion”, or because that’s what had happened with the previous Labour council.

“But we stopped it,” she says. “We wouldn’t close a single school without evidence. Those that were shut were closed for the right reasons.

“I know there are still people out there who are angry. One man I know tells his son every time I see them ‘that’s the woman who closed your school’, but I bet he’s doing much better at the school he attends now because the money that goes into a school depends on the size of the roll.

“I had to close a school in my ward. There was never any favouritism.”

Other evidence used to prove that her coalition administration has worked is the council budget.

“We inherited a dreadful financial situation,” she says. “We had departments which, year upon year, had been overspending by millions and it was never taken seriously. Directors did not have a real grip on budgets.

“There was also only £373,000 left in reserves, which was pretty dire.

“In the first two years we balanced the books, or even had a surplus, and it looks like it will be the same this year. That to me was a real achievement.”

Looking to the next five years, Cllr Dawe says her party wants to build on what it has already achieved – more care homes for the elderly, or better support for them in their homes, investing in children, even looking again at a business case for more tram lines.

But if her party is almost wiped out, as is being suggested, how hard will she find it to no longer wield the reins of power?

“I will be very disappointed if it turns out I’m not to be involved in making the decisions, but that’s politics,” she says. “It’s difficult to forecast what will happen. I just hope it won’t be a low turnout because it’s the council that most affects people’s lives.”

She adds: “I think this administration has put Edinburgh first in the way other parties haven’t.

“I look back and think we’ve left Edinburgh in a better place than it was when we came into power. Overall, it’s been a real privilege and honour to lead this city for five years.”

YOUR CUT OUT AND KEEP GUIDE TO THE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS MANIFESTO

FINANCE

n Continue to push for recognition of Edinburgh’s needs in government finance distribution.

n Give voluntary organisations more funding certainty.

n Review Outlook and other council publications to ensure they’re fit for purpose.

n Assess implications of the Living Wage for all council employees.

ECONOMY

n Work with partners to attract more international investors.

n Continue the focus on development areas of West, South East, Waterfront and City Centre.

n Expand the Edinburgh Guarantee to help the young unemployed find work.

TRANSPORT

• Roll out cycle training to all P6 children.

• Maintain good condition of roads and pavements, use £3m to fix potholes.

• Increase the spend on cycling to five per cent of transport budget and improve maintenance of cycle network.

• Implement further residents’ parking zones where demanded.

• Present a revised business case of the extension of the tram line down Leith Walk and consider the best way to get trams to Little France.

CULTURE/LEISURE/SPORT

• Complete Assembly Rooms refurbishment and improvements to King’s Theatre.

• A new library in Craigmillar and enhancement of library services.

• Deliver new synthetic pitches at Jack Kane and Meadowbank Sports Centres.

• Refurbish Joppa Tennis Pavilion.

EDUCATION/CHILDREN

• Continue to prioritise high standards of educational attainment, with special attention to the lowest- achieving 20 per cent.

• Ensure all primary pupils get at least two hours of PE a week.

• Hold to class sizes of 25 in P1 and work towards smaller classes in areas of deprivation.

• Deliver Edinburgh’s first Gaelic primary school.

ENVIRONMENT

• Make Edinburgh a “green exampler” in carbon reduction and energy efficiency.

• Implement Low Emission Zones where appropriate, examine traffic flow and encourage walking, cycling and use of public transport.

• Develop at least one new allotment site each year.

• Roll out food waste collection.

• Develop a £250k micro-hydro scheme at Saughton Weir to provide renewable energy for council facilities.

HEALTH

• Improve the Home Care Service, expanding the overnight visiting service.

• Acknowledge the debt owed to unpaid carers by expanding respite services.

• Develop an Autism plan.

HOUSING

• Continue with the £170m 21st century hojmes project.

• Triple the number of affordable homes built.

• In 2012-13 deliver 1500 new kitchens and bathrooms, 780 rewired homes, 400 new energy-efficient heating systems, 300 homes with double glazing and fit 1550 new doors.

PLANNING

• Introduce projects to remove on-street parking to produce a more pedestrian-friendly environment.

• Resist breaches in the Green Belt.

• Advise that car parking in new flats should be underground.

• Seek to allow solar panels to be fitted on listed buildings.

CRIME

• Review the use of CCTV in the city to ensure it discourages crime but doesn’t infringe civil liberties.

• Maintain emphasis on prevention of crime and fires.

• Tackle the increase in hate crimes.